Iowa Supreme Court justices have a chance to curb the reckless, defamatory political advertising that fills our TV and web screens and sours Iowans on the entire political process.
We hope they can do it within constitutional bounds.
Iowa justices last Thursday heard testimony in Bertrand v. Mullin and the Iowa Democratic Party, a fascinating examination of the tolerances of free speech and political expression. State Sen. Rick Bertrand, R-Sioux City, won a $231,000 verdict against his Democratic challenger Rick Mullin and the state party. The Democrats aired advertising in 2010 that condemned Bertrand for “putting his profits ahead of children’s health.” Bertrand was an Iowa district manager for a Japanese drug firm facing FDA scrutiny for a children’s sleeping medication. Jurors in the district court agreed the ad exaggerated Bertrand’s role with the firm and fabricated his connection to the FDA probe.
An appellate court reduced the judgment to $50,000 and both sides appealed.
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We’ve seen hours of similar ads, blaring noxious innuendo that poses as free speech. Most of it is inflicted by secret donors to out-of-state special interest groups that never experience Iowa’s toxic campaign-season airwaves.
Bertrand’s case involves Iowans and the state party’s campaign fund with named donors. So Iowa justices won’t address who paid for the ads. They’re being asked to establish a line where reckless rhetoric creates liability.
Bertrand clearly is an elected public figure who should expect tougher criticism. Case law holds public figures to higher scrutiny. But Iowa Democrats purchased ads accusing Bertrand of “putting his profits ahead of children’s health,” a provably wrong distortion that had nothing to do with his elected service.
That’s a line a Woodbury County jury ruled should not be crossed.
We have to wonder how much $50,000 in liability will discourage a multi-million dollar campaign. But we’re eager to see Iowa’s justices consider some limit to the bullying that passes for politics.
“I think Iowa has an opportunity, once again, to lead the nation. It’s an opportunity for this court to say, ‘Enough is enough,’ that at some point, you can’t say just anything with the intention of malice behind it and get away with it.” — Sen. Rick Bertrand